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Burning down the house

When a fire ripped through the American Embassy in Moscow weeks ago, American intelligence agents were left with another espionage setback. The paranoid, undermanned Soviet monitoring team lost their sigint, their radio and telephone intercept capability, as well as most of their secure communications links. Even worse, KGB men dressed as fire fighters managed to sneak off with some minor classified data in the confusion.

With turmoil in the Soviet Union approaching historical proportions, US intelligence in the region is now just about the worst it has ever been. The fire didn't help, but US intelligence in Russia has been suffering from terminal stupidity for at least 10 years.

For much of the 1970s and 1980s, American espionage shifted from human agents to electronic eavesdropping. While the United States accumulated a lot of hard data this way, certain minor events, like the crumbling of Eastern Europe and the unrest in the Soviet Union, took the United States by surprise. Since then, the United States has reinitiated human intelligence operations, and according to the latest intelligence leaks, is not doing too good a job of it.

Intelligence operations in the Soviet Union, in particular, have had their share of setbacks. The Moscow embassy staff, reeling from a 1986 security scandal, was supposed to relocate to a shiny new building last year, until US agents discovered that the Soviet construction workers had built listening devices into walls -- an old British trick that the US should have expected. Embassy personnel had enough trouble managing without the Soviet

officeworkers who had been fired after the scandal -- they were now nearly homeless as well. Even worse, senior officials, fearing disloyalty, clamped down on solo contact between embassy agents and outsiders, the agents' chief method of intelligence gathering.

The biggest flaw in US intelligence strategy is that we are aiming for 100 percent security and 100 percent accuracy, two goals that have always been unrealistic in espionage practices. Intelligence forces on all sides have always suffered leaks, been led astray by false data, and been manipulated by double agents. If a nation manages to break even in wins and losses, it is doing well. If it manages to learn more than it loses, even by a marginal amount, it has beaten the odds. US and British intelligence has a history of infamous blunders -- trying to prevent the inevitable by keeping agents from making local contacts hurts the United States more than the Soviets. With Soviet control weakening, individual infiltration and associations with nations will be the most beneficial form of espionage, even if 20 or maybe 30 percent of the contacts are false leads or dead ends.

Snooping sounds unethical, but espionage is really one of the most beneficial forms of international contact there is. Espionage is stabilizing -- it prevents suspicion and insecurity by making secret plans hard to keep quiet. Good intelligence data has prevented countless crises, and has signaled the beginning of some of the worst confrontations of this century. Without spying, the nations of this planet would have destroyed themselves ages ago. Reports are surfacing that the Soviet Union nearly went to war with the United States in 1983, after the KGB was unable to find evidence that the new US militancy of Ronald Reagan was not a prelude to war.

Intelligence isn't perfect. We can't expect it to be. In an infamous 1950s incident described in Peter Wright's Spycatcher, CIA and British MI5 agents dug a tunnel underneath East Germany to what they thought was a KGB building. The building was actually a phony intelligence headquarters, and the Russians pumped phony conversations down into the tunnel for a year. Despite this goof, US intelligence continued, and had more than a few stunning successes. Some intelligence, it seems, is better than no intelligence, a point the United States has yet to learn.


Matthew H. Hersch, a freshman, is associate opinion editor of The Tech.